Agartala: The Congress, which was in power for two complete terms in Tripura since it attained statehood in 1972 and remained the principal Opposition party until the last Assembly elections, is facing the upcoming polls merely to maintain its relevance in the state's politics.
The Congress, its critics say, has been absent from active politics, owing to its many political compulsions. Moreover, the large scale exodus of leaders and workers from the party over past three years has left it in a deplorable state.
The BJP, on the other hand, was a direct beneficiary of this. Strengthened by the wave of influx of former congressmen, it has occupied the vacuum left by the grand old party in the state's political landscape. The saffron party, which could hardly cross five percent vote share in past elections, is now posing a strong challenge to the ruling CPM in its bastion.
"Congress was never interested in rooting out the CPM, and it left the people to suffer extensively. People rallied behind BJP as it is committed to defeat the Left and end the state's enormous sufferings," BJP's state in-charge Sunil Deodhar told Firstpost.
Vote share of Congress in past Assembly elections has never dipped below 30 percent, except in 1977 ( when it got 17.76 percent votes), implying that the support to the grand old party continued despite all odds. Congress won 10 seats in the 60 member House in 2013 Assembly polls, after having polled 36.53 percent votes, in a close race with CPM.
National leadership's neglect led to loss in 2013
Erstwhile Congress leaders and MLAs like Ashish Kumar Saha, Sudip Roy Barman and Biswabandhu Sen, who are now contesting as BJP candidates, argue that a serious push and participation from prominent leaders like Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and others would have turned the tide in their favour in 2013.
"We could guess what is going to happen when CPM leader Sitaram Yechury announced that Sonia Gandhi would not turn up to campaign for her party. Sonia Gandhi, indeed, did not come despite our hard work to make her rallies a grand success," Saha complained.
Rahul Gandhi, too, stayed away from active campaigning in 2013 except addressing a meeting at the constituency of a youth Congress leader. Just two days ahead of poll day, then Union finance minister P Chidambaram visited the state merely for three hours and addressed a street corner meeting at Kamalpur in Dhalai district.
"We had no other choice but to leave the party without any specific destination. Now we are in BJP as it has resolved to defeat CPM. And for that matter all central leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah are campaigning hard," former Congress MLA Subal Bhowmik, who moved to BJP in 2015 and is now contesting from Sonamura Assembly constituency said.
After 2013 Assembly results, frustration and dissolution forced the common workers and supporters of Congress to look for a viable alternative in the Opposition. BJP started luring them to raise its support base and stepped up its activities in the state after 2014 general elections. The saffron party invested funds and energy in a coordinated way to emerge as a serious contender against CPM. It was for this reason that Union BJP ministers started frequenting the state to review and sanction projects.
Of the 10 Congress MLAs in 2013, six had left the party two years ago for a brief stint in Trinamool Congress, before finally joining the BJP. Another of them resigned from state Assembly and joined the CPM, but he too, ultimately moved to the BJP. Another Congress MLA joined BJP ahead of announcement of poll schedule for Tripura.
After the large scale desertions, Congress is now left with two MLAs — Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president Birajit Sinha and former PCC chief Gopal Roy — who now have the command of the party's state unit. Tripura's royal family's head Pradyot Kishore Manikya, who is also the PCC working president, was seen during unveiling of party's election manifesto, but has virtually stayed away from active campaigning.
"I am not really interested in state politics. But, (I) want to see CPM defeated as it has undermined immense contributions of my ancestors," Manikya said. Last week BJP's election in charge in Tripura and Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had visited him at Ujjayanta Palace, fueling speculation that he might switch over to the BJP.
The royal family of Manikya dynasty is highly respected by the tribals and BJP desperately wanted Manikya to woo voters in the 20 constituencies reserved for tribals. "We wanted him (Pradyot), but he had not made up his mind," said BJP state president Biplab Kumar Deb.
Sources within the state Congress said Manikya gave up the idea of parting ways with Congress on the advice of Jyotiraditya Scindia, who facilitated a meeting between Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Manikya and his mother Rajmata Bibhu Kumari Devi. Scindia and Manikya dynasties are connected through matrimonial relations.
Futile attempts at forging alliance
As situation for the party worsened, local leaders of Congress made futile attempts to forge an umbrella alliance to gain some ground against the CPM and the BJP. They held dialogues with parties like Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT), Nationalist Council of Tripura (NCT) and the Trinamool Congress.
"As parties other than Trinamool Congress were looking for fund and resources, Congress high command ultimately discouraged its unit from working out modalities for alliance. Congress central leadership knows it's a lost battle they are fighting," said journalist Romel Chakma.
Since 1982, Congress has had a tie up with INPT (formerly Tripura Upajati Yuba Samiti or TUJS) in every local and general election. But resurgence of tribal politics and the demand of a separate Tipraland, took another tribal party, Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT) much ahead of its competitors, as far as contests on seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes are concerned.
Congress is now contesting on 59 Assembly segments after losing one candidate to the BJP. Its limited strategy is to prevent BJP from coming to power in the state, which was evident from the speech of former Assam chief minister and Congress veteran Tarun Gogoi.
"We have to prevent BJP from taking over Tripura. It cheated people of Assam and will cheat people of Tripura if given a chance," Gogoi asserted at an election rally in Agartala. Former ministers and senior leaders of the Congress from neighbouring Assam and Manipur are campaigning in Tripura to narrate how BJP "failed to deliver" its pledges in their states in order to aware the electorate of Tripura about "consequences" they may face if BJP is voted to power.
Chakma believes it is next to impossible to see a Congress win in the 18 February election. "It will even be tough for most Congress candidates to finish second, but they can spoil BJP's prospects in closely contested seats. That will be an advantage for CPM," he said.
The author is an Imphal-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
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Updated Date: Feb 16, 2018 20:51:26 IST